An obsessive reader frees himself after an 11-month reading marathon on Apple's tempting tablet.
I bought an iPad last July, and gave it to my daughter in May. The 11 months of my iPad experience taught me some personalized lessons about disruptive technologies.
I have been around advanced computing forever; as a recruiter in the late '80s, I was getting résumés over the internet from Silicon Valley developers, pre-Web (yes Virginia, there was an Internet before there was a World Wide Web -- you can look it up).
I loved my iPad 2 as soon as I got it. With a couple of exceptions, my information consumption remained the same: no games, aside from an occasional FreeCell or solitaire; little social media, aside from LinkedIn and Twitter for business; a lot of Netflix, but my TV watching went down. My surfing of news, business, technology and sports websites stayed constant.
It was book reading that was my Achilles heel on the iPad. I am a voracious reader who can't remember what I did with my time before I learned to read. As a kid, I read past bedtime through the crack of light under my bedroom door, straining my eyes for hours till I needed glasses. In high school and college, I routinely skipped class to read books of my choosing (also to play basketball, go to matinees, nap, etc.). On vacations these days, I try not to read at all, to give myself a break from taking in information.
In the 11 months I had the iPad, I purchased and read more than 125 digital books. The cost was not prohibitive -- the books ranged in price from $14.99 for new releases from major publishers to 99 cents for the cheesy "Remo the Destroyer" adventure novels I enjoyed in high school. Turns out I still enjoy them -- I read a couple of dozen. Nearly all the other books were history of some sort: autobiographies, evolution of technology, military, professional sports, true crime. An additional 20 or so free classics like Edmund Burke, Tacitus and Mark Twain were downloaded and unread.
To my amazement, this book lover found the user experience of reading books on the iPad superior to reading actual books. A double-spaced "page" on the iPad is the size of a standard paperback. Swiping to turn pages, bookmarking, and reading unobtrusively in the dark - all were easier digitally than on "dead trees."
Buying digital books was the most alluring temptation. No more going to the bookstore or ordering books on Amazon to be delivered in several days. The Kindle store was a tab on my Safari browser, and instant gratification was seconds away.
Suddenly there were no barriers to keep me from reading new books late into the night. I flew through them at a tremendous rate. A third of them I might have bought anyway, particularly the histories of technology and society. But the remainder were impulse buys.
Having the same books in physical form pile up at my bedside would have made it obvious to me (or at least to my wife) that I was reading too much, and too indulgingly. A dozen NBA or Mafia memoirs would look ridiculous on my nightstand; on my sleek iPad they waited for me discreetly.
While my consumption of content spiked, my generation of it dwindled to a trickle. Evenings and weekends previously spent formulating, massaging and writing essays were now used to consume books, principally of the junk-calorie variety. A second edition of a book I wrote in 2008 languished waiting for completion of an additional chapter.
So when my stepdaughter graduated from DeLaSalle High School this spring (congratulations, Chloe!) and returned her school iPad, I seized the opportunity and gave her mine.
Do I miss it? Not much. Am I using my "content" time more effectively? Well, you are reading this.
During the dot-com era, I was given a tour of a software company's new offices, weeks after its successful IPO. The CEO proudly pointed to the latest software on his employees' computers, with a continuous banner of news headlines and the company's stock price running across the bottom of the screen. I was less impressed.
"Let me see if I understand this in productivity terms," I said. "You have instructed a virtual newsboy to drop off the newest edition of the afternoon newspaper every 15 minutes on each employee's desk, distracting them with the latest news and each tick in your stock price, for them to recalculate their net worth in company stock. And this is a good thing?"
Disruptive technologies are ... disruptive. The impact of the Internet may turn out to be a combination of Johan Gutenberg's printing press, television, and the "gin craze" of 18th-century London -- when the invention of cheap gin distillation, combined with mass urbanization, created modern substance abuse, which we struggle with to this day.
In the coming decades, society will develop habits of self-discipline to avoid disrupting lives with excessive online temptations, whether social networking, pornography, shopping, or my old-school temptation of Gutenberg's 500-year-old invention.